Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

Will regulating drugs in the West save lives in the East?

Countries where drug charges lead to executions are not part of the drug regulation debate

A line up of powerful politicos recently called on governments across the globe to regulate illegal narcotics and take them – and the profits they generate – out of the hands of violent drug cartels.

Members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy – including former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and former U.S Secretary of State George Shultz – say the reasons for regulating drugs include the protection of human rights. The U.S.-led “war on drugs,” they say, almost uniquely focuses on prohibition and tends to disproportionately imprison racial minorities and women.

But as the United States and Latin America actively explore drug war alternatives aimed at stemming drug-fueled violence, Asian and Middle Eastern countries not only lag behind in these experimental approaches but frequently violate human rights by executing citizens for drug related crimes.

As many as 1,000 people are executed each year on drugs charges in the Middle East and Asia – states with little representation in the Global Commission and no interest in regulating drugs on human rights grounds – according to Harm Reduction International, a United Kingdom-based NGO.

Execution statistics in China, North Korea and Vietnam are closely guarded secrets. But rights groups such as Amnesty International say that executions for drug-related crimes are regular occurrences.

In Vietnam, for example, 30 people were sentenced to death on drug charges in January, and rights groups estimate that many of the 700 people on death row in that country are there on drug charges. And in Iran, 10,000 people were executed on drug charges between 1979 and 2011, according to U.K.-based rights group Reprieve.

Despite the extreme punishment in Asia and Middle East, even for minors, only one member of the Global Commission, Pakistani rights activist Asma Jahangir, is from the “golden crescent” of central Asia’s drug trade. Jahangir was not present during the commission’s presentation and could not be reached for comment.

The Commission will “continue to expand efforts with the intention of gather [sic] new leaders especially in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle- East,” said commission member Beatriz Alquéres. “It is part of the outreach strategy of the new report to mobilize new constituencies and to adapt our messages for these regions.” 

The bulk of the world’s opium production takes place in Afghanistan and moves through Iran, where smugglers and users are often hanged. Harm Reduction International lists Iran – along with Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Singapore – as a “high application” state, where those sentenced to death are often executed in violation of international law.

So far, these countries have been the topic of discussion within the Global Commission rather than participants in the conversation.

“We as a commission actually call for more dialogue with these countries and our call for an open debate, our call for breaking the taboo, which, we believe, has been successful in so many places in the world, has not yet reached those particular regions,” said Michel Kazatchkine, the U.N. secretary general special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

A hard sell

Eliminating the death penalty for drug offenses in Asia and the Middle East will be a hard sell, says Maya Foa, strategic director of the death penalty team at Reprieve.

In some Asian countries, she said, the conversation remains a bit of non-starter.

“In Malaysia and Vietnam…there’s a real sense that drugs are a scourge and that we need to do everything to eliminate them and the way that they try to realize that is through a tough, punitive reaction to drug crimes, ” said Foa.

Louise Arbour, a Global Commission member, agrees. She says current criminal systems in these countries allow “things that are not permissible under the current international legal system – and yet are vastly tolerated, such as the gross infringement of human rights, starting with recourse to the death penalty for drug-related offences, which is in clear violation of international human rights laws and standards.”

But there are ways to change the conversation, says Foa. Drug policy advocates, for instance, can focus on drug dependency in Pakistan and look at the health issues rather than the criminality issue, because, said Foa, the Pakistani judiciary has noted that the current way of dealing with drug traffickers is not solving the problem.

That conversation might take different forms in other Asian countries as well as North Africa and Iran, where some degree of harm reduction has been part of the prison system, which offers treatment to prisoners with drug dependency issues.

Reasons for hope

Slow as it is, change is possible, say drug policy experts.

Some countries that take the toughest stances on drug charges, including Iran and Pakistan, receive funding from Western countries through the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

That aid comes with this encouragement to increase drug seizures and arrests. The number of arrests directly correlates to the number of executions, even though at times those arrests can be politically motivated, as in the case of Zahra Bahrami.

But donor countries, many of which are against the death penalty for drug cases, can have a role in how these countries deal with drug-related crimes, said Foa.

It’s possible, Foa added, that shifting attitudes in donor countries may lead to the rethinking of policies in Asia and the Middle East. She cites Pakistan as an example.

While conviction rates on drug charges are high in Pakistan – around 92 percent – the judiciary, she said, “has lost its appetite” for executing the convicted.

“I’m very optimistic. One needs to expose the flaws in the system and use the commitment issue, in terms of where the aid is coming from, in large part Britain, and the fact that they have a commitment against the death penalty, to open up a dialogue,” said Foa. 

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter